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Meltdown at CPAC as Conservatives Struggle to Reconcile Property Rights With Mask Mandates

John Locke has officially been canceled.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to the crowd at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I am scanning in vain the “Locke’s notebook” blog of Conservatives for Property Rights for any discussion of Friday morning’s unpleasantness at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The mission of Conservatives for Property Rights, you see, is “to bring a unified voice of Movement Conservatives, with a renewed emphasis on private property in all its forms—physical, personal, and intellectual—as an unalienable right.” One would expect such latter-day Lockeans to be outraged that CPAC conferencegoers are trammeling the property rights of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation by refusing to wear masks. Yet they are silent.

“I know this might sound like a little bit of a downer,” Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, told conference attendees on Friday morning, “but we also believe in property rights. And this is a private hotel.… A private hotel, just like your house, gets to set its own rules. Carly? Our CPAC director?”

Carly Patrick, the CPAC and events coordinator at the American Conservative Union, accepted Schneider’s cue. “We are in a private facility, and we do want to be respectful of the ordinances that they have as their private property, so please, everyone, when you’re in the ballroom, when you’re seated, you still should be wearing a mask. So if everybody can go ahead, work on that.…”

Here, angry audience rumblings began to burble up.

“I know,” Patrick said, “I know, it’s not the most fun.”

Now the audience was booing.

“You have the right to set the [sic] own rules in your own house,” Schneider repeated. “And we’re borrowing someone else’s house. So we need to comply with their rules. So thank you all for putting on your masks—”

Continued booing.

“I wear a mask when I’m in the halls, and we’re gonna comply with their rules.”

Politico’s Quint Forgey, who reported this vignette and posted the relevant video from the CPAC conference, noted some tension between Schneider and Patrick’s message and that of Florida Governor (and TNR’s Scoundrel of the Year) Ron DeSantis, who earlier that morning greeted conference participants by saying, “Welcome to our oasis of freedom! We are an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering, in many parts of the country, under the yoke of oppressive lockdowns.… Florida got it right and the lockdown states got it wrong.”

As governor, DeSantis refuses to impose a statewide order requiring the wearing of masks in public. That distinguishes Florida from 35 other states that require it, including many very conservative ones like Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming. But Orlando, where the CPAC conference is taking place, is situated in Orange County, which operates under an emergency executive order issued June 24 that requires that “every person working, living, visiting, or doing business … wear a Face Covering consistent with the current CDC guideline while in a place that is open to the public, whether indoors or outdoors.”

In urging the CPAC crowd to wear masks, Schneider and Patrick made brief reference to another embattled conservative ideal in the Trump era: the rule of law. “We conservatives believe in the rule of law,” Schneider said. “We need to comply with the laws of this county that we’re in.” Patrick’s confusing reference to “the ordinances that they have as their private property” sounds like an invocation of the rule of law that she abruptly transformed midsentence to an appeal to private property rights. Perhaps the reason these rule-of-law refrains were so half-hearted was that the whole notion may not have survived the 2020 election results and the Capitol Hill putsch of January 6.

Or perhaps Schneider and Patrick soft-pedaled the rule-of-law argument because Orange County and DeSantis are in some conflict at the moment about whether the county mask ordinance still stands. County Mayor Jerry Demings—yes, in Orange County they call the county chief “mayor”—has said the mask ordinance remains very much in effect. But one day before the CPAC conference, DeSantis issued a Florida state executive order that “suspends the collection of fines and penalties associated with COVID-19 enforced upon individuals,” and references an earlier executive order saying state mandates “shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”

Orange County’s Demings says that because the county mask ordinance never imposed any fines or penalties, it’s unaffected by DeSantis’s new order. But a county ordinance that was never enforceable and that is now opposed by the state’s governor may not have struck Schneider and Patrick as their best argument to get conferencegoers to don masks and prevent CPAC from becoming the Covid superspreader event we all expect it to be.

Thus the appeal to property rights.

A strict Lockean will argue, correctly, that any rule the Hyatt Regency Orlando imposes in response to a county ordinance isn’t an exercise of private property rights, properly understood. Rather, it’s the exercise of government power to dictate, within certain boundaries, how the Hyatt Regency Orlando conducts business. If Patrick’s phrase “the ordinances that they have as their private property” demonstrates that she doesn’t grasp this difference, then she has no place in any movement that calls itself conservative.

But the Hyatt’s demand that CPAC guests wear masks does not depend solely on the Orange County ordinance. It depends also on a companywide policy imposed by the home office of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. To wit:

Face masks or coverings are required in hotel indoor public areas and when moving around in outdoor areas at all Hyatt hotels globally [italics mine], with some exceptions, based on local laws or guidance.… Public areas may include hotel lobbies, meetings and events spaces, restaurants and bars, and fitness centers.

There is no international treaty that requires people who visit Hyatt hotels all over the world to wear masks. The Hyatt Hotels Corporation imposed this rule out of its own desire to prevent the spread of disease on its own private property—and also, presumably, to shield its own liability in cases of rampant Covid-19 transmission. The only deference made in the company’s policy to “local laws or guidance” concerns specific exceptions to mask mandates required by certain special circumstances. The Hyatt policy document mentions people who are eating and drinking; people with certain medical conditions; very young children; and people who are seated and socially distant. Anyone with questions is advised to contact the Hyatt Global Contact Center.

Don’t waste your time asking Hyatt whether someone may be excused from mask-wearing on the basis of being a MAGA-mad science-denying blowhard. I promise you Hyatt will say no. It’s their hotel chain, and they get to make the rules.

A principled MAGA-mad science-denying blowhard could assert his or her right not to wear a mask, and also uphold private property rights, by reacting to Schneider and Patrick’s plea by departing the sold-out conference immediately, thereby sacrificing the opportunity to see Donald Trump’s much-anticipated address on Sunday. If such a person exists, please contact the author of this column. I’m not going to hold my breath.